Leah’s Review of “The Forest of Stolen Girls” by June Hur

By: Leah

Originally posted on Leah’s Books.

The Forest of Stolen Girls

  • Author: June Hur
  • Genre: YA Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: April 20, 2021
  • Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

CONTENT WARNING: suicide, death, blood, death of a parent, murder

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot summary

The forest watches me, hostile and still, with remembering eyes.

1426, Joseon. Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest near a gruesome crime scene.

Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared from the same forest that nearly stole his daughters. He travels to their hometown on the island of Jeju to investigate … only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and collides with her now estranged sister, Maewol—Hwani comes to realize that the answer could lie within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

Overall impression

I was already prepared to love this book, after falling in love with The Silence of Bones last year. And this one was just as good, leading me easily into a time and place I know nothing about, but still making me feel as though I was right there with the characters without ever feeling lost or confused. Even the liberal use of unfamiliar Korean terms felt easy to understand, since they were all clearly defined or explained in context, making this an incredibly accessible read for someone like me, with very little knowledge about Korean history, culture, or language. I finished this book not just with a little more understanding than when I started, but with a desire to learn more.

Much like other historical, patriarchal societies, women and especially young women, were expected to follow strict codes dictating their behavior. And Hwani went way outside the lines by leaving her home to do something that was extremely unusual — she wanted to follow up on her father’s work and finish an investigation that he started, and find her missing father. This was at a time when women were basically expected to do not much more than get married and have children. Which is the path that Hwani was expected and pressured to take, without any say over who she would be married off to. It wasn’t exactly an appealing prospect, but she was resigned to it.

“Even if my worst nightmare came true, I would still do what I was best at doing: live in obedience. I would marry and bear children. It was Father’s dream.”

At this time, it was extremely unsafe to be a young woman in Joseon. This book explored the idea of tribute girls, who were taken from their homes and families and sent to the Ming Dynasty as tributes. Girls were hidden from basically everyone so that even neighbors wouldn’t know that families had daughters, in order to protect them. Hwani traveled as a boy, for her safety.

“Young ladies were not supposed to leave home to investigate the missing or dead. But no one needed to know who I was.”

The plot is really what hooked me, as fascinating as the history aspect was. Hwani is actually a pretty good investigator, although I was so frustrated with her when she made dumb mistakes throughout the story. However, I often had to remind myself that as smart as she was, she was also a sheltered girl who didn’t really have much life experience, and didn’t really know much about other people. When I reframed it that way, it altered how I viewed her and the choices that she made. In addition to working on solving two mysteries (the missing girls and her vanished father), she was also trying to recover her own lost memories and figure out how to reconnect with her sister, with whom she didn’t have a relationship anymore. 

Overall, this story was one that I struggled to put down. I truly felt for Hwani and Maewol. They were easy to connect with, and it was so interesting to see the way Hwani worked to figure out crime scenes and motives. June Hur has worked her way up to become one of my favorite authors, and while I’ve consistently enjoyed historical fiction, she brings it to a whole new level by making it accessible to YA readers, as well as adding in a different level of complexity by setting it in Joseon. I’m curious to see what her upcoming book is like, and I’ll definitely be reading it as soon as I can.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 11

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